‘The real Britain’

To mark the Platinum Jubilee, here’s an extract from Alwyn Turner’s Crisis? What Crisis? Britain in the 1970s.

Against a background of simmering disenchantment came a week of respite with the Silver Jubilee in 1977. In the twenty-five years since Queen Elizabeth II had inherited the crown from her father, the nation had undergone some drastic adjustments, both to its everyday life and to its psychology, but there were still constants, and the nuclear royal family was very definitely among them: the Queen remained a unifying figure, Prince Philip was then mostly considered a man of blunt common sense, and their children had only one marriage and no divorces between them, Princess Anne being, so far as anyone could judge, blissfully happy with her equally horsey husband.

The jubilee was marked with enormous enthusiasm, both official and spontaneous, starting with a hymn from the poet laureate, Sir John Betjeman, that was described by Tory MP Nicholas Fairbairn as ‘poetic plonk’:

In days of disillusion,
However low we’ve been,
To fire us and inspire us
God gave to us our Queen.

Elsewhere, the London buses on the 25 route – which fortuitously went past Buckingham Palace – were painted silver in celebration, a new London Underground line was renamed the Jubilee Line from the originally proposed Fleet Line (though it didn’t actually open for another two years), the Queen embarked upon a three-month tour of the country, beacons were lit, and thousands of street parties and other festivities were staged throughout the country.

At Wimbledon, which was itself celebrating the centenary of its tennis championships, the Queen made a rare appearance to watch Virginia Wade win the singles title, the last time a British player of either gender would do so in the twentieth century. It was, however briefly, a time of rejoicing, of celebrating the monarchy as the symbol of a British identity that rose above the impoverished political standards of the day. And it was, against all the pessimistic predictions, a huge success.

It was also, though, a time of taking stock, of measuring the decline of the nation. The most watched TV programme in Jubilee week itself was an episode of Coronation Street in which the Rovers Return prepared a float on the theme of Britain Thro’ the Ages for the Weatherfield parade, with the regulars dressed as historical and mythical characters: Ena Sharples as Queen Victoria, and Bet Lynch as Britannia, amongst others. Unfortunately, Stan Ogden left the lorry’s headlights on overnight and ran the battery flat, so that it didn’t start on the day, and the project had to be abandoned.

And as a crestfallen Annie Walker sits in her parlour, still incongruously wearing her costume as Elizabeth I, she berates Ken Barlow, the Street’s resident liberal, when he suggests that the float probably wasn’t missed: ‘I’m sorry, I can’t see it in that easygoing, don’t-care attitude. I’m surprised to hear it from you. That’s one of the things that’s wrong with the country today.’ He attempts to defend his position, and she dismisses his arguments with yet more despair: ‘Nobody tries hard enough any more, and when things go wrong, nobody seems to care any more.’

The pathetic spectacle of this stately figure, the closest thing that television had to an embodiment of Old England, stranded out of context, sunk in the depths of regal hopelessness, was reminiscent of William Hogarth’s Election engraving ‘The Polling’, some two centuries earlier, with its depiction of Britannia trapped in a broken-down coach.

The clash between ancient and modern was seen again in Derek Jarman’s belated film Jubilee (1978). Set in a version of Britain that is at least partially recognizable as the present – an Evening Standard news-stand poster is seen with the headline ‘Healey’s budget strategy in ruins’ – Jubilee featured Elizabeth I transported by the magician John Dee to modern London, and wandering through a post-apocalyptic urban wasteland, where boredom is punctuated by random acts of violence. The soundtrack included versions of ‘Rule Britannia’ and ‘Jerusalem’ rendered in collages of mock-operatic singing, new-wave guitar riffs and samples of the Nuremberg rallies. ‘It’s all fucking nostalgia,’ reflects Bod (Jenny Runacre, doubling as Queen Elizabeth). ‘It’s the only way they can get through the day.’

The contrast was reflective of the times. Despite the genuine enthusiasm generated by the jubilee, and its massive endorsement by the media, the coverage of cheering crowds at the Queen’s walkabouts could not conceal the continuing unrest in the country.

‘The place gets more schizophrenic every day,’ wrote film director Lindsay Anderson in his diary, ‘with this example of unruffled and smiling traditionalism on one page, and on the other, generally facing, strikes and inflation of prices, and corruption in the police, and violent conflict on the picket lines. Which is the real Britain? I wish I knew!’

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